Peeling away pancreatic cancers' defenses

A combination immunotherapy approach that gets through pancreatic cancers’ extra Read more

Immune cell activation in severe COVID-19 resembles lupus

In severe cases of COVID-19, Emory researchers have been observing an exuberant activation of B cells, resembling acute flares in systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), an autoimmune disease. The findings point towards tests that could separate some COVID-19 patients who need immune-calming therapies from others who may not. It also may begin to explain why some people infected with SARS-CoV-2 produce abundant antibodies against the virus, yet experience poor outcomes. The results were published online on Oct. Read more

Muscle cell boundaries: some assembly required

The worm C elegans gives insight into muscle cell assembly + architecture Read more

Neuro

The sweet side of Alzheimer’s proteomics

The Alzheimer’s field has been in a “back to the basics” mode lately. Much research has focused on beta-amyloid, the toxic protein fragment that accumulates in plaques in the brain. Yet drugs that target beta-amyloid have mostly been disappointing in clinical trials.

To broaden scope and gain new insights into the biology of Alzheimer’s, Emory investigators have been making large-scale efforts to catalog alterations of brain proteins. One recent example: Nick Seyfried and Erik Johnson’s enormous collection of proteomics data, published this spring in Nature Medicine. Another can be seen in the systematic mapping of N-glycosylation, just published in Science Advances by pharmacologist Lian Li and colleagues.

“It is very exciting to see, for the first time, the landscape of protein N-glycosylation changes in Alzheimer’s brain,” Li says. “Our results suggest that the N-glycosylation changes may contribute to brain malfunction in Alzheimer’s patients.  We believe that targeting N-glycosylation may provide a new opportunity to help combat this devastating dementia.”

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Fragile X: $8 million NIH grant supports next-generation neuroscience

Supported by a $8 million, five-year grant, an Emory-led team of scientists plans to investigate new therapeutic approaches to fragile X syndrome, the most common inherited intellectual disability and a major single-gene cause of autism.

Fragile X research represents a doorway to a better understanding of autism, and learning and memory. The field has made strides in recent years. Researchers have a good understanding of the functions of the FMR1 gene, which is silenced in fragile X syndrome.

Still, clinical trials based on that understanding have been unsuccessful, highlighting limitations of current mouse models. Researchers say the answer is to use “organoid” cultures that mimic the developing human brain.

The new grant continues support for the Emory Fragile X Center, first funded by the National Institutes of Health in 1997. The Center’s research program includes scientists from Emory as well as Stanford, New York University, Penn and the University of Southern California. The Emory Center will be one of three funded by the National Institutes of Health; the others are at Baylor College of Medicine and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

The co-directors for the Emory Fragile X Center are Peng Jin, PhD, chair of human genetics, and Stephen Warren, PhD, William Patterson Timmie professor and chair emeritus of human genetics. In the 1980s and 1990s, Warren led an international team that discovered the FMR1 gene and the mechanism of trinucleotide repeat expansion that silences the gene. This explained fragile X syndrome’s distinctive inheritance pattern, first identified by Emory geneticist Stephanie Sherman, PhD.

“Fragile X research is a consistent strength for Emory, stretching across several departments, based on groundbreaking work from Steve and Stephanie,” Jin says. “Now we have an opportunity to apply the knowledge we and our colleagues have gained to test the next generation of treatments.”

Fragile X researchers from three Emory departments, following COVID-19 spacing guidelines in the laboratory. From left to right: Peng Jin, Gary Bassell, Zhexing Wen and Nisha Raj.

Looking ahead, a key element of the Center’s research will involve studying the human brain in “disease in a dish” models, says Gary Bassell, PhD, chair of cell biology. Nisha Raj, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in Bassell’s lab, has been studying how FMR1 regulates localized protein synthesis at the brain’s synapses.

“What we’re learning is that there may be different RNA targets in human and mouse cells,” he says. “There’s a clear need to regroup and incorporate human cells into the research.”

Microscope images of fragile X human brain organoids, courtesy of Zhexing Wen. Green represents cytoplasmic Nestin while red represents nuclear Sox2; both are markers for neural progenitor cells.
Microscope image of fragile X human brain organoids, courtesy of Zhexing Wen. Green represents cytoplasmic Nestin while red represents nuclear Sox2; both are markers for neural progenitor cells. 

Center investigator Zhexing Wen, PhD, has developed techniques for culturing brain organoids (image above), which reproduce features of human brain development in miniature. Wen, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, cell biology and neurology at Emory, has used organoids to model other disorders, such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease. 

The organoids are formed from human brain cells, coming from induced pluripotent stem cells, which are in turn derived from patient-donated tissues. Emory’s Laboratory of Translational Cell Biology, directed by Bassell, has developed several lines of induced pluripotent stem cells from fragile X syndrome patients.

“All of the investigators are sharing these valuable resources and collaborating on multiple projects,” Bassell says.

Principal investigators in the Emory Fragile X Center are Jin, Warren, Bassell, and Wen, along with Eric Klann, PhD at New York University, Lu Chen, PhD, and 2013 Nobel Prize winner Thomas Südhof, MD. Chen and Südhof are neuroscientists at Stanford.

Co-investigators include biostatistician Hao Wu, PhD and geneticist Emily Allen, PhD at Emory, neuroscientist Guo-li Ming, MD, PhD, at University of Pennsylvania, and biomedical engineer Dong Song, PhD, at University of Southern California.
 
Allen, Warren and Jin are part of an additional grant to Baylor, Emory and University of Michigan investigators, who are focusing on FXTAS (fragile X-associated tremor-ataxia syndrome) and FXPOI (fragile X-associated primary ovarian insufficiency). These are conditions that affect people with fragile X premutations.

Fragile X syndrome is caused by a genetic duplication on the X chromosome, a “triplet repeat” in which a portion of the gene (CGG) gets repeated again and again. Fragile X syndrome affects about one child in 5,000, and is more common and more severe in boys. It often causes mild to moderate intellectual disabilities as well as behavioral and learning challenges. About a third of children affected have characteristics of autism, such as problems with eye contact, social anxiety, and delayed speech. 
 
The award for the Emory Fragile X Center is administered by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, with funding from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

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Deep brain stimulation for narcolepsy: proof of concept in mouse model

Emory neurosurgeon Jon Willie and colleagues recently published a paper on deep brain stimulation in a mouse model of narcolepsy with cataplexy. Nobody has ever tried treating narcolepsy in humans with deep brain stimulation (DBS), and the approach is still at the “proof of concept” stage, Willie says.

People with the “classic” type 1 form of narcolepsy have persistent daytime sleepiness and disrupted nighttime sleep, along with cataplexy (a loss of muscle tone in response to emotions), sleep paralysis and vivid dream-hallucinations that bleed into waking time. If untreated, narcolepsy can profoundly interfere with someone’s life. However, the symptoms can often be effectively, if incompletely, managed with medications. That’s why one question has to be: would DBS, implemented through brain surgery, be appropriate?

The room where it happens. Sandwiched between the thalamus and the pituitary, the hypothalamus is home to several distinct bundles of neurons that regulate appetite, heart rate, blood pressure and sweating, as well as sleep and wake. It’s as if in your house or apartment, the thermostat, alarm clock and fuse box were next to each other.

Emory audiences may be familiar with DBS as a treatment for conditions such as depression or Parkinson’s disease, because of the pioneering roles played by investigators such as Helen Mayberg and Mahlon DeLong. Depression and Parkinson’s can also often be treated with medication – but the effectiveness can wane, and DBS is reserved for the most severe cases. For difficult cases of narcolepsy, investigators have been willing to consider brain tissue transplants or immunotherapies in an effort to mitigate or interrupt neurological damage, and similar cost-benefit-risk analyses would have to take place for DBS.

Willie’s paper is also remarkable because it reflects how much is now known about how narcolepsy develops. Read more

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Yerkes researchers find Zika infection soon after birth leads to long-term brain problems

Researchers from the Yerkes National Primate Research Center have shown Zika virus infection soon after birth leads to long-term brain and behavior problems, including persistent socioemotional, cognitive and motor deficits, as well as abnormalities in brain structure and function. This study is one of the first to shed light on potential long-term effects of Zika infection after birth.

“Researchers have shown the devastating damage Zika virus causes to a fetus, but we had questions about what happens to the developing brain of a young child who gets infected by Zika,” says lead researcher Ann Chahroudi, MD, PhD, an affiliate scientist in the Division of Microbiology and Immunology at Yerkes, director of the Center for Childhood Infections and Vaccines (CCIV), Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA) and Emory University, and an associate professor of pediatrics in the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Emory University School of Medicine.

“Our pilot study in nonhuman primates provides clues that Zika virus infection during the early postnatal period can have long-lasting impact on how the brain develops and works, and how this scenario has the potential to impact child behavior,” Chahroudi continues.

The study, published online in Nature Communicationsfollowed four infant rhesus monkeys for one year after Zika virus infection at one month of age. Studying a rhesus monkey until the age of 1 translates to the equivalent of 4 to 5 years in human age. Researchers found postnatal Zika virus infections led to Impairments in memory function, significant changes in behavior, including reduced social interactions and increased emotional reactions, and some gross motor deficits. These changes corresponded with structural and functional brain changes the researchers found on MRI scans – findings that indicate long-term neurologic complications.

“Our findings demonstrate neurodevelopmental changes detected at 3 and 6 months of age are persistent,” says first author Jessica Raper, PhD, research assistant professor at Yerkes. (See Science Translational Medicine for an earlier study by members of the current research team.) “This is significant because it gives healthcare providers a better understanding of possible complications of Zika beyond infection during pregnancy and into the first years of life,” she adds.
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‘Genetic doppelgangers:’ Emory research provides insight into two neurological puzzles

An international team led by Emory scientists has gained insight into the pathological mechanisms behind two devastating neurodegenerative diseases. The scientists compared the most common inherited form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and frontotemporal dementia (ALS/FTD) with a rarer disease called spinocerebellar ataxia type 36 (SCA 36).

Both of the diseases are caused by abnormally expanded and strikingly similar DNA repeats. However, ALS progresses quickly, typically killing patients within a year or two, while the disease progression of SCA36 proceeds more slowly over the course of decades. In ALS/FTD it appears that protein products can poison cells in the nervous system. Whether similar protein products exist in SCA36 is not known.

What Zachary McEachin, PhD, and Gary Bassell, PhD, from Emory’s Department of Cell Biology, along with a team of collaborators at Emory, the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, and internationally from Spain and Japan, discovered have provided a new paradigm for thinking about how aberrant protein species are formed.  Regardless of the disparate clinical outcomes between these diseases, this research could broaden the avenue of research toward genetically targeted treatments for such related neurodegenerative diseases.

Their study, published Tuesday in Neuron, provides a guide to types of protein that build up in brain cells in both disorders, and which should be reduced if the new mode of treatment is working in clinical trials.

“We are thinking of these diseases as genetic doppelgängers,” says McEachin, a postdoctoral fellow in Bassell’s lab. “By that, I mean they are genetically similar, but the neurodegeneration progresses differently for each disease. We can use this research to understand each of the respective disorders much better — and hopefully help patients improve their quality of life down the road with better treatments.”

An estimated 16,000 people in the United States have ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. The most common inherited form of ALS/FTD occurs because there is an abnormally expanded repeat of six DNA “letters” stuck into a gene called c9orf72.

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NINDS supporting Emory/UF work on myotonic dystrophy

A collaboration we wrote about back in 2017, between Emory cell biology chair Gary Bassell and University of Florida neurogeneticist Eric Wang, is taking off.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has awarded Bassell’s and Wang’s laboratories $2.2 million over five years to examine the neuronal function of Muscleblind-like proteins, which play key roles in myotonic dystrophy.

Gary Bassell and Eric Wang have been collaborating on myotonic dystrophy research

The classic symptom for myotonic dystrophy is having trouble releasing one’s grip on a doorknob, but it is a multi-system disorder, caused by expanded DNA triplet or quadruplet repeats. RNA from the expanded repeats is thought to bind and sequester Muscleblind-like proteins, leading to an impaired process of RNA splicing.

Bassell says the project is expected to clarify how Muscleblind-like proteins regulate RNA localization in neurons and also identify therapeutic targets. In recent years, the DM research community has been paying increasing attention to neurologic symptoms.

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Traynelis lead researcher on CureGRIN/Chan Zuckerberg award

Congratulations to the CureGRIN Foundation, which was recently awarded a capacity-building grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s Rare as One Network. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is giving 30 patient advocacy groups such as CureGRIN $450,000 each over two years.

CureGRIN works closely with Emory pharmacologist Stephen Traynelis, who has been investigating rare genetic disorders affecting NMDA receptors, which play key roles in memory, learning and neuronal development. When NMDA receptor function is perturbed by mutations, symptoms appear in infancy or early childhood, usually including epilepsy and developmental delay.

For the grant, Traynelis is named as the lead researcher for the CureGRIN Foundation, with Tim Benke of Children’s Hospital Colorado as lead clinician. Traynelis is director of the Center for Functional Evaluation of Rare Variants, which hosted a gathering at Emory Conference Center that brought together several GRIN-oriented patient advocacy groups in September 2019.

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Neurodegeneration accelerated by intestinal bacteria?

An influential theory about the anatomical trajectory of Parkinson’s disease is getting a microbial boost. The idea, first proposed by neuroanatomist Heiko Braak in 2003, is that pathology and neurodegeneration start in the intestines and then travel to the brain. See this article in Scientific American for background.

Illustration showing neurons with Lewy bodies, depicted as small red spheres, which are deposits of aggregated proteins in brain cells

Timothy Sampson, in Emory’s Department of Physiology, was first author on a recent paper in eLife, which explores the idea that prion-like proteins produced by intestinal bacteria can accelerate the aggregation of similar proteins found in our cells. The findings suggest that interventions targeting intestinal bacteria could modulate neurodegeneration.

Sampson, a former Emory graduate student who did postdoctoral work in Sarkis Mazmaniam’s lab at Caltech, says he will continue the project here. He and his colleagues were looking at the interaction between a bacterial protein called Curli – involved in adhesion + biofilms — and the aggregation-prone mammalian protein alpha-synuclein, known as a main component of the Lewy body clumps seen in Parkinson’s. The experiments were in a mouse model of Parkinson’s neurodegeneration, in which human alpha-synuclein is overproduced.

Looking ahead, Sampson says he is interested in what signals from the microbiome may trigger, accelerate or slow synuclein aggregation. He’s also looking at where in the GI tract synuclein begins to aggregate, possibly facilitated by particular cells in the intestine, and whether the observations with alpha-synuclein hold true for other proteins such as amyloid-beta in Alzheimer’s.

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More NMDA but less excitotoxicity? Now possible

Emory pharmacologists have discovered a new class of potential drugs that might allow them to have their cake and eat it too — with reference to NMDA receptors, important control sites in the brain for learning and memory.

Many researchers have wanted to enhance NMDA receptor signals to treat disorders such as schizophrenia. But at the same time, they need to avoid killing neurons with “excitotoxicity”, which comes from excess calcium entering the cell. Excitotoxicity is thought to be a major mechanism of cell death in stroke and traumatic brain injury.

Usually more sensitivity to NMDA activation and excess calcium go hand in hand. In a new Nature Chemical Biology paper, pharmacologist Stephen Traynelis and colleagues have identified a group of compounds that allow them to separate those two aspects of NMDA signaling.

These compounds appear to selectively decrease how much calcium (as opposed to sodium) flows through the NMDA ion channel. Traynelis says that the discovery opens up pharmacological possibilities for NMDA receptors similar to those for other receptor classes that are prominent drug targets, such as G-protein coupled receptors and acetylcholine receptors. With such receptors, the drugs are called “biased agonists” or “biased modulators” because they shift the balance of how the ion channel responds.

For NMDA receptors, how these newly identified compounds work on a molecular level needs to be explored, and could lead to the long-standing goal of NMDA-based neuroprotection for treatment of stroke/TBI, the authors note. Postdoc Riley Perszyk is first author, with cell biologist Gary Bassell and chemists Dennis Liotta and Lanny Liebeskind as co-authors.

Traynelis discussed this research in his Hodgkin Huxley Katz Prize Lecture to the Physiology 2019 conference in Scotland in December 2019 (the part about the new class of NMDA modulators starts at about 20 minutes).

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Probing visual memory at leisure

Emory Brain Health researchers have developed a computer program that passively assesses visual memory. An infrared eye tracker monitors eye movements, while the person being tested views a series of photos.

This approach, relatively unstrenuous for those whose memory is being assessed, is an alternative for the diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease. It detects degeneration of the regions of the brain that govern visual memory (entorhinal cortex/hippocampus), which are some of the earliest to deteriorate.

The approach was published in Learning and Memory last year, but bioinformatics chair Gari Clifford discussed the project at a recent talk, and we felt it deserved more attention. First author Rafi Haque is a MD/PhD student in the Neuroscience program, with neurology chair/Goizueta ADRC director Allan Levey as senior author.

Eye tracking of people with MCI and Alzheimer’s shows they spend less time checking the new or missing element in the critical region of the photo, compared with healthy controls. Adapted from Haque et al 2019.

The entire test takes around 4 minutes on a standard 24 inch monitor (a follow-up publication on an iPad version is in the pipeline). Photos are presented twice a few minutes apart, and the second time, part of the photo is missing or new – see diagram above. Read more

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